|WATER and SEWERS
"I reserve the right to choose my own poison,"--Carl Cahill, in
an October 1977 Reason magazine article describing his fight to
refuse a mandatory city water hookup.
Libertarians point to the waste of water resources, high-cost water and sewer systems, unsafe and polluted water--and hold that these are the consequences of a tax-supported local government monopoly over water and sewer systems. Libertarians would open the way to alternatives and innovations by abolishing mandatory hookups with, and fees for, local government systems; by putting these systems on a self-sufficient footing; by abolishing the privilege of eminent domain for construction of water and sewer lines; and by improving the legal safeguards against unwanted pollution of water resources.
Waste occurs whenever a resource is devoted
to uses other than those which consumers would freely choose in the market.
Ample evidence--highlighted by recent water shortages in Western states--shows
that large-scale government water projects have wasted water. Offering
water sometimes as much as four-fifths free, these projects have
encouraged relatively unproductive land to be brought into irrigated use,l
driven more fertile farmlands out of agricultural production,2 and squandered
available water resources so that whole regions lie at the mercy of drought.3
Closer to the local level, we find that the subsidization of water rates
out of general tax revenues fosters similar over-consumption. More
waste results when local governments bend to political or statutory demands
that they indiscriminately provide all comers with water system connections.
Local water authorities' reliance upon exhortation and rationing--instead
of the peak load pricing which private businesses are free to employ in
times of scarcity--lets fresh water go down the drain when it is most needed
The combined impact of government water and sewer subsidies leads to even greater waste. Take the household toilet as an example: for one person during one year, the five-gallon flush contaminates thirteen thousand gallons of fresh water to move 165 gallons of body wastes.6 Any system with so little efficiency would, it seems, be carefully scrutinized by private entrepreneurs--especially where fresh water is scarce. But this is not the end of it. Enormous flows of water--the result of local governments' subsidizing water systems--also strain the capacity of sewage plants to process sewage, lengthening the odds that sewage recovery techniques will come into use. In sum, tax money for sewage systems subsidizes the waste of fresh water, and tax money for water systems helps assure that the sewage resource will go unused.
Cost was once thought to be a compelling
argument for government-run water and sewer systems. Such functions
were said to be a "natural monopoly," and since--according to the theory--private
monopolists would raise prices without limit, the government may as well
take over, run the system economically, and distribute the monopolist's
profits back to the taxpayer in the form of lower rates. Libertarians recognize
that this theory flunks the test of truth in several ways. There
are no such natural monopolies" on the unhampered market. While an
individual company may take advantage of inflexible consumer demands and
of the difficulties faced by those who might like to get into the competition,
ultimately has its substitutes and there always comes a point beyond which
no private "monopolist" can get away with further price increases without
hurting his own position. Only governments, with their franchises
and grants of exclusive privilege, create true monopoly. And that is just
what a local water department or water authority is.
The Debate Over Water Quality
One of the lesser-remarked effects of a
governmental monopoly is the way in which it withholds, obscures, and politicizes
information about the product. Government officials in charge of
local water and sewer systems, and the related technicians, engineers,
and bureaucrats who work with water quality desire, like other human beings,
to keep their jobs secure. They do not "rock the boat" or raise embarrassing
questions about the safety and cleanliness of water supplies and sewer
system effluents unless they are forced to do so. And there are few incentives
to do that. It is one thing to discuss these issues in professional seminars
of water quality engineers and quite another to have to answer the tart
claims made by competing water companies, as they would have to do where
a government monopoly did not exist.
More than ever before there is a general awareness by the public of environmental pollution. This should be a good thing because it should lead to public support of pollution control programs. To date it has not been a good thing. The environmental con men have stepped in and diverted public attention from the real job to be done.11Thus while the rise of EPA-style environmentalism has in part been a predictable backlash to years of disinterest on the part of the government water treatment establishment, the new "reformed" government policy is no better than the old. Nor are its advocates any less misleading than those whom they castigate.
For instance, one recent article on pollution of water supplies12 put forth the oft-heard claim that sixty to ninety per cent of human cancers are caused by environmental carcinogens, and that the incidence and the seriousness of the disease are on the rise. The statistics, it was added, demonstrate a close correlation between this increasing cancer risk and the purportedly rising volume of plastics, chemicals, and pesticides polluting our water supplies.13
But let us look at these claims more closely. The sixty to ninety per cent figure includes cigarette smoking with "environmental carcinogens"--and the American Cancer Society estimates that smoking alone may account for as much as eighty per cent of all lung cancers, which rank as the leading cause of cancer deaths among American males. 14 The "general increase" in cancer turns out to be a statistical illusion. Apart from increases in the death rate from cancer of the respiratory system (linked largely with smoking) and increases due to greater longevity, the cancer death rate for men has been basically constant from 1950-1970 and decreasing since 1970. The total age- adjusted death rate for women has been approximately constant since 1950.15 Thus the actual rise in cancer mortality--a maddeningly real phenomenon of tremendous concern to the man on the street--is misleadingly, sometimes sensationally, linked with industrial chemicals and polluted water. As for the "close correlation" between rising cancer mortality and production of industrial pollutants, it needs to be remembered that correlations or similarities between two statistical patterns may suggest, but cannot prove, that one pattern causes the other.
This and other examples of "false advertising" fill the air when "pro-industry" and "environmentalist" interests vie for power over water quality management. The political process, with its inherent lack of free competition for all technologies and processes, systematically generates these half-truths and misleading generalizations as groups compete for the allegiance of the public. It is a fundamental contention here that no Libertarian should become entrapped, as do the "liberal" and "conservative" advocates, into taking ad hoc, ill-informed positions on technical and scientific issues of water quality. It is unreasonable to expect that these issues can be resolved on the pages of The New York Times or Newsweek--or anywhere in a political context. It is positively dangerous to the health and safety of Americans to entrust the vital issue of water quality to such an inherently unreliable system as the organized warfare we call politics. The only truly just and practical measure which can result in a free and open competition of ideas and methods is to deny water system and sewer authorities access to the spoils of power. This would drive them to appeal to the public and those institutions--the colleges, scientific foundations, consumers unions, and others--who routinely investigate and report upon the validity of scientific and commercial claims.
NON-WATER SEWAGE SYSTEMS
* Aerobic and biological recycling systems which re-circulate cleansed flushing fluids back to the toilet tank.
* Mineral oil recycling systems.
* Composting toilets which reduce wastes to five per cent of original volume and produce a useful garden fertilizer about every two years.
* Incinerating toilets.
* Vacuum and pressure systems which "whoosh" wastes to a collection tank.
Source: Harold H. Leich, "Wanted: A Sewerless Sanitation System," paper given at a conference on sewage and sludge alternatives held by the Association for Rational Environmental Alternatives, May 15, 1977
What will Libertarians do about local water
|1.||"Liquidity Crisis," Barron's, June 27, 1977, p. 24.|
|2.||The shift of competitive advantage to subsidized irrigated agriculture has particularly damaged older properties like the New Jersey vegetable farms where canneries have closed and rich farmland has been broken up and sold for residential development.|
|3.||"Liquidity Crisis," Barron's.|
|4.||This technology was reviewed in a May 15, 1977 conference sponsored by the Association for Rational Environmental Alternatives in College Park, MD. Alternatives discussed included composting, injecting and spraying sludge on farmland, making bagged commercial fertilizer, and lagoon systems. Papers may be obtained from Icon Assoc., 5 East Ave., Wellsboro, PA 16901, $12.50 ppd. See also, "Postscript: AREA Sludge Seminar," AREA Bulletin, (May-June 1977), p. 1. A useful discussion is "Municipal Sludge: What Shall We Do With It?" from League of Women Voters, 1730 N St., NW, Washington, D.C. 20036. Another alternative is the use of water hyacinths to "eat" sewage in lagoons. See "Hyacinth Research Is Blooming," Water & Wastes Engineering, (April 1976) p. 23.|
|5.||See T. D. Hinesly, "Coping With Heavy Metals in Sludge," from AREA sludge conference.|
|6.||Harold H. Leich, "Wanted: A Sewerless Sanitation System," AREA sludge conference, p. 2.|
|7.||"To New Fairfax Water Rates, Add $300,000," Washington Star, July 19, 1977. A good summary of money-saving ideas in water/sewer technology is Robert W. Poole, Jr., Cut Local Taxes (Santa Barbara, CA: Reason Press, 1976) pp. 25-26.|
|8.||See R. L. Bjornseth, "Price Competition, the EPA, and the Engineering Profession," AREA Bulletin, (March 1976) pp. 2-3.|
|9.||Ross E. McKinney, "Beware the Ecological Con Man," a talk given to the Kansas Public Health Association, May 20, 1971.|
|11.||Ibid. Emphasis added.|
|12.||Lawrence Wright, "Troubled Waters," New Times, May 13, 1977, p. 28.|
|13.||Ibid. p. 38.|
|14.||"Cancer and Chemicals," C & EN, January 30, 1978, p. 30.|
|15.||Ibid. p. 31. Therein it is claimed that with most types of cancer the risk of development increases logarithmically with age.|
|16.||The subsidy may out of political necessity be phased out in stages, but the Libertarian must be determined to end it and the taxes which support it.|
|17.||Leich, op. cit., p. 6.|
|18.||William D. Burt, "Water for Juice," AREA Bulletin (March-April 1977), P. 5.|
|19.||See John Dorfman, "The Great Oil Slick Mystery," Chicago (August 1977), p. 116.|
|20.||Tom Alexander, "It's Time for New Approaches to Pollution Control," Fortune (November 1976), p. 130.|
|21.||For recent examples, see Tom Alexander, op. cit.; and Charles L. Schultze, "The Public Use of Private Interest," Harper's (May 1977), p. 55.|